A Tale of Two Trades: Goring and Tonelli

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1979: John Tonelli #27, Butch Goring #91 and Bob Nystrom #23 of the New York Islanders celebrate a goal during their game circa 1979. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

This past week was the anniversary of the former NHL trade deadline. March 10th,  1980 and March 11th,1986 mark the anniversaries of the arrival and departure of two of the most popular New York Islanders in the history of the franchise, Butch Goring and John Tonelli. Both, of course, were significant members of the Islanders dynasty run which included four Stanley Cup championships and both were on the ice together for several historic moments as the Islanders dominated the NHL in the early 1980’s.

But their trades offer a tale in contrasts. Some would argue that it was Goring’s arrival from the Los Angeles Kings, and not Nystrom’s goal, that started the Islanders dynasty. Some would also say the dynasty officially ended after John Tonelli was traded in 1986 to the Calgary Flames, not just after Wayne Gretzky raised the Stanley Cup in 1984. The drive for five was still alive after all. They’re not crazy.

Islanders GM Bill Torrey dealt for the 29 year old Goring, sending popular veterans Dave Lewis and Billy Harris to Los Angeles. Goring told NHL.com while laughing, “As we now know, you can say it was a pretty good trade. It’s because we didn’t just win one; we started a dynasty of some sort.”

But Goring also admitted to the Montreal Gazette, “I was very angry, [when he was first told] But when I got to Long Island and had time to process what was going on, I saw this was a chance to be something really good.”

Prior to Goring’s arrival, the Islanders hadn’t found the consistency they had the prior season when they won the President’s Cup Trophy but fell to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Denis Potvin recalled the exact moment Goring addressed his new teammates in the Islanders dressing room after his arrival. Potvin has been quoted on hockeylegends.com, One thing I’ll never forget is what Butch did. After a couple of games, he stood up and said, ‘I don’t think you guys realize how much respect every team in the league has for you. I don’t think you guys know how good you are.’ Coming from a guy who was 30 years old, it meant a lot to us.”


The Islanders went 8-0-4 upon Goring’s arrival and in those twelve games Goring had six goals and five assists. But it wasn’t Goring’s point output that made the difference and earned him the nickname the “missing piece” of the Islanders dynasty. Denis Potvin added, “There was an element missing, and I think a lot of it had to do with the combination of maturity, which we recognized at that point, and maybe (playing) a little too uptight,” said Potvin. “It wasn’t the newcomer’s point-per-game production that made the trade pay off. It was his effect in the other players.”

One of Goring’s high points with the Islanders was the 1981 Stanley Cup playoffs where he earned the Conn Smythe Trophy while helping lead the Islanders to their second Stanley Cup with 20 points in 18 games. The New York Times reported the night the Islanders took home the cup, “”The No. 1 reason [we won] was teamwork,” said Goring, who had 10 goals, two of which were short-handed and three on the power play. ”Everyone had a certain job and did it.”

”We had the muckers as well as the scorers, and they all knew who they were. Bossy didn’t go out and try to knock guys down because that wasn’t his role. And Bob Nystrom didn’t go out to try and score a lot of goals. He was a mucker and Bossy was a scorer, but there was no jealousy, just a common goal. We all wanted to win like hell.”

”Hey, guys like Bossy and Trottier are still very young. Everybody thinks they’re 28 or 29, but they’re kids. So are a lot of others on this team. And there’s more coming up. We’ve got a lot of Stanley Cups ahead of us.”

Goring would play with the Islanders until the 1984-85 season, racking up 67 goals and 84 assists during his Islanders tenure, but no one has ever quantified Goring’s value to the organization with just stats. Would the Islanders had made the leap to a Stanley Cup champion without Goring? It’s possible. But a very mediocre 19790-80 season turned to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships after his arrival. That can’t be denied.

In 1986, the New York Islanders were at a crossroads. Young players like Pat LaFontaine, Patrick Flatley and Brent Sutter were continuing to develop and the hope was they would be able to blend with the aging veterans on the team and regain the Stanley Cup that was lost to Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers in 1984. The Oilers were now two Stanley Cups into their own dynasty and GM Bill Torrey decided it was time to give the organization a change.

Although Tonelli was a hero from the dynasty run, with his assist on Bobby Nystrom’s goal in 1980 and big playoff goals against Pittsburgh in 1982, 1986 wasn’t going as smoothly. After scoring 42 goals the year prior, Tonelli was a 22-day holdout at training camp over a contract dispute.


When the season began there was speculation that Tonelli’s conditioning wasn’t up to par with the other players and after a scoring drought he was benched by coach Al Arbour to give him a “new perspective”. As the March trade deadline drew closer, the Isles GM walked into the Islanders locker room to deliver the news that one of the keys to the Islanders dynasty run had been traded to the Calgary Flames for forward Richie Kromm and defenseman Steve Konroyd. Tonelli stormed out and said nothing. He didn’t have to walk far. The Calgary Flames were playing the New York Islanders that night at the Nassau Coliseum.

Tonelli was quoted in the New York Times, ”I was shocked when Bill took me aside and told me the news this morning. But there’s probably been bad feelings between us right from the start of the season,” he said of his relationship with management, ”which is something they probably won’t admit.”

”We were always at a distance from each other this year. Now this is a reality,” pointing at his Flames jersey. Tonelli had scored 206 goals during his time with the Islanders, but now it was time to embrace his new club.

Tonelli proved to be a “missing piece” for the Flames as his new team defeated the Oilers in seven games in the Clarence Campbell Conference Finals and prevented Edmonton from matching the Islanders feat of four consecutive Stanley Cups. Wayne Gretzky states in his autobiography that the Flames acquisition of Tonelli that year played an important role in their defeat and some in the Oilers camp even accused the Islanders and Flames of collusion.

Two heroes from the Islanders dynasty not named Bossy, Trottier or Potvin. One arrived on a chariot and one left without a word, but both provided plenty of clutch moments during their tenures that Islanders’ fans will never forget.

Check back in tomorrow morning as the Islanders schedule is getting busy and  news continues to develop on the injury front.

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